Counterculture Youth and Social Movements of the 1960s

Definitions of the Counterculture

In its most common and initial sense, the counterculture refers to the culture, especially of young people, with values or lifestyles in opposition to those of the established culture in the dictionary. Until its appearance in 1969 in Theodore Roszak's influential book, The Making of a Counter Culture, "counterculture", written as one word or two, has become the standard term to describe the cultural revolt of the young. Although distinct countercultural undercurrents exist in all societies, here the term counterculture refers to a more significant, visible phenomenon that reaches critical mass and persists for a period of time.

According to Roszak's definition, the counterculture movement refers to all the protest movements that happened in America in the 1960s, including both the political movements such as the women's liberation movement, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the antiwar movement against Vietnam, the environment movement, the gay rights movement, and the cultural "movements" as drug abuse, hippies, free sex, and rock and roll.

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Several explicit and dozens of implicit definitions of counterculture have been offered since the term was proposed more than three decades ago. One explicit definition that Westhue gave from the ideological and behavioral perspectives is "On the ideological level, a counterculture is a set of beliefs and values which radically reject the dominant culture of a society and prescribe a sectarian alternative. On the behavioral level, a counterculture is a group of people who, because they accept such beliefs and values, behave in such radically nonconformist ways that they tend to drop out of the society.

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"Another definition that Timothy Miller gave in his The Hippies and American Values defined the counterculture as "a romantic social movement of the late 1960s and very early 1970s, mainly composed of teenagers and persons in their early twenties, who through their flamboyant lifestyle expressed their alienation from mainstream American life." From this definition we can draw a conclusion that the main force of the counterculture movement is young people from middle class families.

Social Background in the 1960s

The 1960s was a transitional period of great social change. Economically, like the 1920s and 1990s, the decade of the 1960s was a period of remarkable prosperity in the U.S. as measured by such statistics as GNP and the unemployment rate. But culturally, it was a period when long-held values and norms of behavior seemed to break down, particularly among the young. The far-reaching changes that developed in the late 1960s affected many aspects of society. Many college-age men and women became the major force of the civil rights movements. Other young people simply separated themselves from mainstream culture through their appearance and lifestyle and joined the group of hippies. Attitudes toward sexuality appeared to loosen, and women began to openly protest the traditional roles of housewife and mother that society had assigned to them. With the nation shocked and paralyzed by the Vietnam War, thousands of American youth showed their concern through campus rallies, antiwar demonstrations, and concerts for peace.

Many of the nation's youth were strongly opposed to the war taking place halfway across the world, in which their fathers, brothers, and husbands were dying. United in their antiwar sentiment, thousands of young people joined in their creation of the "counterculture." The 1960s was a decade of counterculture, with its music, its poetry, its fashion, its art, its way of life, its political struggle, and its contradictions, its rise and its failure. Then the questions are raised: what caused the so-called "counterculture movement"? And why did the movement happen in this specific time period?

The Beat Generation--Cultural Roots

The counterculture's deepest roots lay in the "Beat Generation", a group of American writers who came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) are often considered the most important works of the Beat Generation. The term "Beat" was reported to be coined by Jack Kerouac in the late 1940s, quickly becoming a slang term in America after World War II, meaning "exhausted" or "beat down" and provided this generation with a definitive label for their personal and social positions and perspectives. They are influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion (e.g., Zen Buddhism) and known especially for their use of non-traditional forms and their rejection of conventional social values.

The Beat Generation phenomenon itself has had a huge influence on Western Culture more broadly. In many ways, The Beat Generation can be seen as the first modern "subculture". During the very conformist post-World War II era they were one of the forces engaged in a questioning of traditional values which produced a break with the mainstream culture that to this day people react to or against. There's no question that Beats produced a great deal of interest in lifestyle experimentation (notably in regards to sex and drugs); and they had a large intellectual effect in encouraging the questioning of authority (a force behind the anti-war movement); and many of them were very active in popularizing interest in Zen Buddhism in the West.

During the 1960s other cultural movements absorbed "Beat" ideas and attitudes, and those who practiced something similar to the "Beat" lifestyle were called "hippies". Echoes of the Beat Generation run throughout all the forms of counterculture that have existed since then. Some time during the 1960s, the rapidly expanding "Beat" culture underwent a transformation: the "Beat Generation" gave way to "The Counterculture of the 1960s", which inherited a great deal of "Beat" thoughts and life styles.

The Affluent Society

Economic RootsTo analysis the phenomenon of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, the major force of the movement --- the baby boom generation --- has to be mentioned here. After World War II, Young males returning to the United States following tours of duty overseas during World War II established families, which brought about a significant number of new children into the world. This dramatic increase in the number of births from 1946 to 1964 is called the baby boom. In the United States, approximately 79 million babies were born during the baby boom. Till the year 1964, babies who were born during the first waves of the baby boom was already 18. And in the following 6 years, during the counterculture movement in the 1960s, baby boomers who were studying in high school or college became the major force of the counterculture movement.

The baby boom generation grew up in an affluent society and enjoyed an unprecedented economic and social welfare. During the 1950s, America's Gross National Product (GNP) increased 51%, the real weekly earnings of factory workers increased 50%. By 1960, more than 30% of the population was middle class. Changes in education and housing further demonstrated the growth of the middle class. For the first time, the white young people were able to get to the universities without having to start their working life at the age their parents had to. The education they received broadened their horizons and made it easier for them to accept the social, technological and cultural transformations. They had cars; many of them lived in the suburbs, and were enjoying an easy life.

Those people were going to be the stars of the years to come, with new ideals and hopes, and, one of the most important things, new cultural values, expressions and thoughts. Besides, the baby boomers were the first group to be raised on television, they watched scenes from the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy which strongly affected their sense of security. The boomers found that their music was another expression of their generational identity. Rock and roll drove their parents crazy. Transistor radios were personal devices that allowed teenagers to listen to "The Beatles" and "The Motown Sound". Baby boomers constitute the single largest population explosion in history, and the culture they created transformed America, permeating every decade since the 1950s.

The Turmoil in the 1960s

Political RootsThe 1960s was a decade of political turmoil: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War all greatly influenced young people who were born during the baby boom period.

The Vietnam War was the longest military conflict in U.S. history fought in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975, involving the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in conflict with United States forces and the South Vietnamese army. The hostilities in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans. Another 304,000 were wounded. The Vietnam War was the longest and most unpopular war in which Americans ever fought. And there is no reckoning the cost. For many of the more than two million American veterans of the war, the wounds of Vietnam will never heal. Baby boomers played major roles both as troops and protesters during the Vietnam War.

The war dragged the whole generation into miserable memories: either young people themselves or their relatives, friends were fighting in the frontline, many of them dead or wounded. They were scared, distressed but couldn't find better ways to let off their rage except doing drugs or indulging themselves. The Vietnam War became a high-profiled criticism and a platform to promoting peace and criticizing the draft. As a result, the antiwar movement against Vietnam broke out in the year 1965, centering on the colleges, with the students playing leading roles.

Major Events in the Counterculture Movement

The counterculture movement consists of a series of events mainly took place in the later half of the 1960s and it is difficult to trace back to the exact beginning of it. The counterculture stood against the traditional values of middle-class society, and manifested its rebellion in several ways: long hair, brightly colored clothes, communal living, rock and roll music as showcased at Woodstock, free sex, drugs, and riots are some of the means through which the counterculture asserted itself. Through protests and anti-war demonstrations, the counterculture challenged the governmental institutions of American society and the youth spoke out for what they believed in. Throughout the decade many counterculture events increased the movement's notoriety, but two in particular, the Summer of Love and Woodstock Festival, represented the spirit of the protests.

Summer of Love

The Summer of Love refers to the summer of 1967, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where thousands of young people loosely and freely united for a new social experience. As a result, the hippie counterculture movement came into public awareness.

The beginning of the Summer of Love has popularly been attributed to the "Human Be-In" at Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967. Thousands of people answered the call of the "Human Be-In" from the counterculture leaders, gathering in Golden Gate Park to promote peace, happiness, and love. During the spring, more disillusioned youth traveled to San Francisco upon hearing a declaration that the summer of 1967 would be the "Summer of Love." The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco quickly became the gathering place and home for many displaced youth who came to celebrate the counterculture event. City government leaders, determined to stop the influx of young people once schools let out for summer, brought added attention to the scene. An ongoing series of articles in local papers alerted national media to the hippies' growing momentum.

During that summer of 1967, as many as 100,000 young people from around the world flocked to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, Berkeley and other San Francisco Bay Area cities to join in a popularized version of the hippie experience. The Summer of Love attracted a wide range of people of various ages: teenagers and college students drawn by their peers and partying military personnel from bases within an easy drive's distance. For the most part, the Summer of Love proved successful in its ability to spread the counterculture message, but by the fall of 1967, overcrowding, homelessness, hunger, increased incidents of crime and drug abuse signaled a change in the movement. On October 7, 1967, those remaining in the Haight staged a mock funeral, "The Death of the Hippie" ceremony, to signal the end of the played-out scene.

It is already 40 years since the party was over in the Haight-Ashbury. But the influence of that summer in 1967 has never disappeared. The San Francisco hippie, dancing in Golden Gate Park with long hair flowing, has become as much of an enduring American archetype as the gunfighters and cowboys who roamed the Wild West.

The Woodstock Festival

As the most famous of all the counterculture concerts, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair took place in Bethel in upstate New York from 15 to 17 August 1969. The festival was called "Woodstock", because it was supposed to be in the town of Woodstock, in Ulster County; but the town would not give a place for such a large event, because they thought that over a million people would come. Although the show was planned for as many as 200,000 fans, over 500,000 came; most of these did not pay to get in. The roads to the concert were jammed with traffic. People left their cars and walked for miles to get to the concert area. The weekend was rainy and overcrowded, and fans shared food, alcoholic drinks, and drugs.

The Woodstock Festival is remembered as the high point of the "peace and love" ethos of the period, largely because the disaster that the over-crowding, bad weather, food shortages, supposed "bad acid" (LSD), and poor facilities presaged was somehow avoided. Unprepared for such a large crowd, massive traffic jams ensued, food and water quickly disappeared, and bathroom facilities were scarce. Despite the potential for violence and disaster, the festival advertised as "Three Days of Peace and Music" lived up to its billing. Listening to popular musicians of the day such as Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin, concertgoers seemed to bond because of the harsh conditions and a common desire to promote peace and love.

Throughout the 1960s, music served as an integral part of the counterculture movement. Seen as a way to both embrace an alternative lifestyle and protest against war and oppression, hippies organized many outdoor music festivals across the United States. As the most famous music festivals organized by hippies, all in all, Woodstock remains a lasting icon of the countercultural movements of the 1960s that looked to change the world through its acceptance of values and beliefs that contradicted the established power structure of the United States. The festival, the participants of which exhibited extraordinary good feeling in the face of rain and organizational chaos, marked the high point of U.S. youth counterculture in the 1960s.


The counterculture eventually died out in the 1970s for several different reasons like the deaths of notable leading figures and the end of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. Since then, large social groups such as the hippies have diminished, or are virtually non-existent. To some Americans, the attributes of the counterculture reflected American ideals of free speech, equality, and pursuit of happiness; whereas other people saw the counterculture as self-indulgent, pointlessly rebellious, unpatriotic, and destructive of America's moral order, and some have criticized the counterculture movement for being too aggressive and showing some similarities to the establishment itself.

As a matter of fact, the counterculture remains a highly controversial topic in American society; and the only thing that can be agreed upon is its enormous impact on American society in almost every aspect: in fashion, the commonly wore neckties and suits in the 1950s had been replaced by everyday wear, and generally longer hairstyles became new fashion not only for young people but for the middle aged; in music, the blending of folk rock into newer forms including acid rock and heavy metal became popular; in sense of value, interracial dating and marriage have become common and generally accepted, frankness regarding sexual matters has become the norm, the rights of homosexual, bisexual and transexual people have expanded; in religious aspects, eastern religions and spiritual concepts, karma and reincarnation in particular, have reached a wider audience; in lifestyles, co-operative business enterprises and creative community living arrangements are widely accepted. Interest in natural food, herbal remedies and vitamins is widespread.

The greatest legacy of the counterculture, both to culture and to the succeeding countercultures rests in a greater and deeper concern over human needs and human nature as an essential step in emancipating human creativity. Although almost 40 years has passed, there are still indications of the influence of the counterculture movement within contemporary technologies. The ideas of the counterculture movement such as sharing, community, self-expression, anti-establishment, and individual freedom can be seen through many of the technologies we have today. As one of the most heatedly disputed issues in cultural studies and sociological arena, the counterculture movement influences different generations in both lifestyles and ideology and should be remembered by all of us.


  1. Bradbury, Malcolm and Temperley, Howard. Introduction to American Studies. New York: Longman House, 1981.
  2. Miller, Timothy: The Hippies and American Values. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
  3. Roszak, Theodore: The Making of a Counterculture. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969.
  4. Westhues, Kenneth: Society's Shadow: Studies in the Sociology of Countercultures. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1972.
Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Counterculture Youth and Social Movements of the 1960s. (2016, Jul 18). Retrieved from

Counterculture Youth and Social Movements of the 1960s essay
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